Toronto

'We are very, very cheap labour': Families hosting visa students say York board not paying them enough

Homestay providers and custodians who are providing room, board and guardianship for international students say the York Region District School Board doesn't pay them enough to look after the teenagers' needs.

Homestay providers receive $900 per student each month to cover meals, snacks, bills, room

Micki Rivers spends $1,000 a month on groceries for three teenage boys. (CBC)

Some parents who host international students north of Toronto say the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) is charging students' families too much while paying homestay providers too little. 

After a CBC Toronto investigation revealed gaps in the system bringing international students to Canada, including the lack of government oversight over homestay and custodian (otherwise known as guardianship) services, several people reached out to discuss the situation at the YRDSB, which runs its own program placing visa students with host families and custodians, who oversee their safety and well-being. 

Micki Rivers started hosting international students at her Richmond Hill home in January last year, but quickly realized it was too expensive.

"My grocery bill is $1,000 a month now. All my electrical is up 30 per cent," she said. "We can't order in food. We can't take the boys out to any activities. We're barely squeaking by." 

Rivers is paid $900 per student each month, and when she brought up concerns with the board, she said they ignored her. 

Lily Chen, who lives in Markham, hosted high school students through the YRDSB for two years but says she decided not to continue with it in November 2017 after her last student moved out. She said the school board ignored her concerns over the same issue as Rivers. 

Invoice from YRDSB to homestay provider. (Provided by Xiu Chen )
"In the beginning, I think it's good for us to ... help international students settle down in this country," she said. "But, I find out it's not easy."

She said the toughest part was buying enough nutritious food for teenagers, especially boys. "The price has gone up a lot, but we were paid very, very low," said Chen. "We pay everything—utility fees, internet, food for them. I feel we are very, very cheap labour." 

Board charges $30K per student annually

Chen says she received $900 per student each month from the YRDSB, but points out the board collects thousands of dollars from international students each month, totalling approximately $30,000 per student each year for all the services it provides. It also does not refund students' fees if they choose to move in the middle of a school year, nor does it continue paying the providers. 
Fee breakdown for international students from YRDSB website. (YRDSB )

CBC Toronto repeatedly asked the board to comment, but was told no one could provide an interview.

CBC also contacted every board trustee, but those who responded referred the inquiries back to the board chair, who in turn directed them back to YRDSB's communications department. 

Meanwhile, Ken Chen — not related to Lily Chen — who is also a homestay provider through the school board, says he's also reconsidering staying with the program after just six months. 

Chen says his mother, who lives with him, initially wanted to host students but the process has been "kind of frustrating for us." 

He also told CBC the board currently pays him $900 a month for each of the two young teenage boys who live with them. 

"We can't do that anymore," he said. "It's not even enough to cover my expenses. It's not worth it. But, I feel sorry about these students. We got a pretty good relationship." 

At the time, Chen was providing food and a place for them to live, which is different from being a custodian — typically an unrelated person who takes a legal guardianship role, overseeing the student's safety and well-being, as well as acting as an advocate on his or her behalf.

Chen says he felt responsible enough for the teenagers to accept custodianship of them in the last couple of weeks, and he felt pressure from the school. A few weeks ago, he said he received an email, which he showed CBC Toronto, then a call from the board. 

Merging roles

"They say, 'You must sign the paper. If not, you will not be eligible to host the two students. They might have to move out," he said. Chen said he initially didn't want the responsibility of also acting as the teens' custodians but also did not want to risk them being forced to move. 
Micki Rivers has decided to leave YRDSB's homestay program because it pays too little. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The email sent to Chen was also sent by the school board to all host families. It confirms the board is merging the custodian and host family roles.

"Please note that this is a mandatory process for all the host families and should you decide to not proceed in its favor (sic), you will not be able to host after June 2018," it reads. 

Rivers says she was also offered a bit more money to take on more responsibility as a custodian. But so far, she says, she hasn't been paid by the board. 

"I feel taken advantage of," she said. "I feel nobody communicated properly. I gave all kinds of reasons I wasn't feeling valued for this program, but none of it was addressed."

Student increase

During CBC Toronto's research into the system overseeing international students, the YRDSB provided the number of international students who attend its schools, but it's not known how many of them find housing and custodians through the board.

Since the 2014-2015 school year, the number of foreign students has increased from 1,582 in the 2014-15 school year to 2,655 students in 2017-18, a 68 per cent increase. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Xing is a journalist by trade and a historian by degree. She's also a creative writer, photographer and traveller. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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